Section I: Sapient Races
Section II: Beastly Races
the lake of crystal,
lake of silence,
no bird sings,
no fish swims near the surface,
no grass rims the edge.
the hum in the air,
buzz of wings,
no bird sings,
no sweet scent caresses your soul,
no joy will ever be yours to have.
the burrower that assails you,
its sting means the end.”
“I have never been very keen on traveling. Strange then that I should have chosen the profession of a merchant, wouldn’t you agree? Well, it’s the family business, and being the only son (with three older and four younger sisters), there was little choice but to take over the chores from my father. Some disagreed with my choice, mostly my brothers-in-law who salivated at the prospect of inheriting the business. Seeing that the majority of them was not only greedy and selfish but also outclassed in intelligence by any donkey, I would rather have never again laid eyes on my hometown than see my father’s hard work be wasted.
“So I was forced to travel across half the continent in the past two decades. No, the travel has never grown on me. There is still nothing more joyous to me than being at home during the winter when all the roads are frozen up. The sight of the first snow flakes is like a magical gift to me, because it means that the next months I will spend cooped up in the house I built, with my beloved wife Tahira, only leaving its confines to meet with friends, see a stage play or listen to a bard sing of great adventures. I love it when a white carpet covers the cobblestoned roads, when my breath turns into a misty wraith, and I can see Tahira’s smile linger on me.
“Yet any summer you will find me far away from Ibrollene and Tahira’s welcome, instead encountering the oddities of other peoples. Occasionally there are pleasant nice surprises, such as the exquisite cuisine of the Blue Land that manages to squeeze a magnificent taste out of the Romanii’s dreadful ingredients. Most of the time, though, I am simply stunned by the strangeness of the foreigners – and sometimes their incredible ignorance.
“Imagine if you will how I felt when I came to the Tonomai city of Obrosvek and commented on the absence of dragonflies during the latter part of my journey. ‘Why would you worry about dragonflies?’ the trader Afatsum wondered, as decent a man as you might find in the filth-laden realm of the Tonomai. ‘Do you see dragonflies as a portent of evil?’
“You must understand that Tonomai do not share our religion. Rather they view ours as some superstitious idiocy, as if the Gods were not present every day of our lives. (And their lives, too, I’d wager.) And whenever Tonomai attempt to understand our true religion, all they see is a cover of pointless superstitions.
“To Afatsum’s question, I replied angrily, ‘Of course they are a portent of evil! By Darawk’s beard, the dragonflies are killers! If you let one of those bloody monsters near you, the sting is going to destroy you!’
“At that Afatsum looked as if I had gone mad. ‘But… Dear Fronqua, dragonflies don’t have any stings. Even if they did, they are no larger than five inches!’
“’Five inches?! Try five feet!’ I cried before realizing how silly this must have seemed. Afatsum had never heard of the kind of dragonflies I spoke of, and that told me how incredibly lucky the Tonomai are.
“Ibrollene, Arrufat, Cayaboré, they all are infested with burrower dragonflies. Kraznyczar as well, and most certainly the Blue Land. (Dragonflies, I suppose, are the only creatures in their realm that the Romanii do not eat.) Rek’atrednu probably has its own share, but after all, no sane person would set foot into the empire of the undead.
“Well, Afatsum kept asking me questions about the burrowers, so we sat down in a nearby café, and I proceeded to explain to him what the dragonflies are. ‘Your average burrower,’ I began, ‘measures some five feet in length while the wings are only a little wider. Their tail segment is very long and can twist about a lot more easily than a scorpion’s. In fact they can sting in full flight, paralyzing their victim instantly. Even a fully grown human, believe me. In dragonfly country, you don’t want to walk about without good armor all over.
“’Thank the Gods that they are so territorial, or else you couldn’t walk anywhere without thick leather on your back. In the streets of Marsey or Niiz or Sirap, the only burrower dragonfly you’re likely to see is one that’s stuffed and mounted in a museum.’
“Afatsum took a sip from his cup of coffee. (Honored Lestrovar, please note that I have included a sample of these beans in this package. You have to grind them and boil the pulver in a bag, much like tea. It is a rather bitter taste, but it grows very much on you.) ‘I still do not see what is so terrible about these dragonflies of yours, large though they may be. That scorpion you mentioned, its sting kills instantly while the dragonfly only paralyzes.’
“I nodded to that. ‘Yes, but the terror comes afterwards,’ I said and suppressed a shiver. ‘For the dragonfly will drag the victim to its nesting pond, a lake that looks perfectly natural – and beautiful – to the unsuspecting eye. It rarely ever has been a true lake; rather it is created by an acid that the dragonfly larvae excrete. And what seems to be water is that very acid! A dragonfly’s victim that is dropped into the pond dissolves instantly, turning into ready nutrients for the larvae. What makes this even worse to bear is that the victim is fully aware of what is going on. (We know this because some were saved from their fate, and the paralysis wore off after a while.)
“’Only the larvae can withstand the acid, the adults only have a trunklike appendage with which they can syphon nutrients from the liquid; that is the only part of their bodies immune to the acid. More so, the larvae thrive in it! It provides them with all the food they need, from prey dropped in or unwary travellers that try to drink from the lake. That is a cruel trap, Afatsum, very cruel. However thirsty you may be, if you come to a lake that is serenely quiet, you always test the water with a wooden stick first, to see if it gets dissolved.’
“I could already see the nervousness in the Tonomai’s face increase, and in a perverse fashion I enjoyed the next facts I would reveal. ‘Every now and then, though, the dragonfly’s quarry won’t be carried to the pond. Not that its fate were any better. The ordinary victim only has a few minutes of terror, but this one – its horror will last for weeks and months!’
“Afatsum swallowed hard. ‘Tell me,’ he demanded eagerly and repulsed at the same time.
“’The dragonfly will carry its quarry to a secluded spot of its own choosing, and then it will sting the prey again – but now the sting will last for hours because the creature is injecting its eggs into the victim. That is why they are called burrowers, my dear friend, they burrow their offspring in the bodies of live victims. And the victims are then released, still alive, bearing the eggs within them.
“’Never dream of cutting the evil brood out. It is impossible without killing the victim as well. Only by magical means can a cure be achieved. Yet in the areas where dragonflies persist, I believe that few wizards or even mere mages can be found.
“’No, the eggs will stay in the victim, and they will grow, sucking nutrients from the surrounding flesh, bit by bit. There isn’t much pain in the first couple of weeks. Those ignorant of the dragonfly’s nature – and who have passed out during their capture, I suppose – might think that they have escaped a dreadful death. But then, after some four or five weeks, the larvae will hatch.’
“I paused, and my Tonomai acquaintance was ready to pick up the cue. ‘The acidic ones!’
“’Exactly. At first the acid isn’t all that strong, just enough to dissolve a little of the tissue. The pain instantly becomes great, but not unbearable yet. It takes the creatures a few days more before vital organs become affected. The symptoms are much like a fever, perhaps some of the weird diseases from the jungle countries.
“’But the victim is still able to move, and move he will.’ Another shiver ran down my spine. ‘Don’t ask me how it works, but somehow the larvae can implant ideas into the victim’s brain, an irresistible urge to return to the area of the original nesting pond. The victim goes mad, and all that remains of his mind drives him to the pond. Meanwhile the larvae grow and feed ever more greedily on his innards. The victim barely makes it to the pond, most of the time, and the pain then is so great that it must be an incredible relief when he casts himself into the acid.’
“At that point Afatsum excused himself for a moment and returned with a bottle of raw spirits. (If you are wondering, the liquor is called ‘Water of Life’ in their tongue but I could never hope to either pronounce or spell it properly.) He offered a glass to me, then poured himself a generous helping which he downed in a single swallow. ‘That is quite a story, Fronqua,’ he said. ‘Provided it is true, I shall watch out for the ponds of your nation.’
“I sighed. ‘You really should, my friend. The burrower dragonflies are a portent of evil, indeed.’ With that I drank my own portion of the liquor, leaned back and hoped that I would never encounter another of the dragonflies in my entire life.
“Well, honored Lestrovar, hopes such as that are rarely fulfilled. On my trip home, my caravan encountered a swarm of some thirty dragonflies. Two of my assistants died during the fight, another we killed after a dragonfly did lay its eggs. If Afatsum had seen that, I wonder whether he would not start believing some of the other ‘superstitions’ of our people.”